Pope Francis laments when ‘ideology replaces faith’ in segment of U.S. Catholics

Pope Francis general audience Pope Francis speaks about World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, during his weekly Wednesday audience in the Paul VI Hall Aug. 9, 2023. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA

In a conversation with Jesuits in Portugal at the beginning of August, Pope Francis commented on a “climate of closure” in the United States, which he said sometimes replaces faith with ideology.

“You say you have felt a climate of closure [in the United States],” the pope said, addressing a question from a Jesuit brother. “Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership in a sector of the Church replaces membership in the Church.”

Pope Francis’ comments were made during a meeting with Jesuits Aug. 5 at the Colégio de São João de Brito, a Jesuit-run primary and secondary school in Lisbon, Portugal. An English translation of Francis’ private conversation with members of the Society of Jesus was published Aug. 28 by the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.

He said the situation in the United States is not easy due to “a very strong reactionary attitude,” which “is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.”

And he referenced what he calls in Italian “indietrismo,” which translates in English to “backwardness” or “looking backward.” 

This attitude, he noted, “is useless, and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lérins already indicated in the fifth century: Doctrine evolves ‘ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate.’”

“In other words, doctrine also progresses, expands, and consolidates with time and becomes firmer but is always progressing,” he explained. 

St. Vincent of Lérins was a 5th century Christian monk. In contemporary times he is considered the leading early Church authority on the theology of tradition and the development of doctrine, though there are diverging interpretations of his thought.

The pope’s citation of Vincent of Lérins in his conversation with Jesuits in Portugal comes from the monk’s theological work, the “Commonitorium,” in which is found one of his most well-known statements, known as the Vincentian canon: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”

Pope Francis has referenced Vincent of Lérins on the development of doctrine in the past, including in a conversation with Jesuits in Canada in July 2022.

In Portugal, the pope said some people “opt out” of Vincent of Lérins’ criteria of doctrinal evolution. These, he said, are the people he calls “indietristi.”

“When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation. If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change,” he said.

Francis said the effects on this backwardness on morality “are devastating.”

“The problems that moralists have to examine today are very serious, and to deal with them they have to take the risk of making changes, but in the direction I was saying,” he said.


Asked by another Jesuit about his greatest joys right now, Pope Francis pointed to the first of two monthlong assemblies of the Synod on Synodality, to take place in October. His joy, he said, is present despite some imperfections in the way the synod is being managed.

“The joy that I have most at present comes from the preparation for the synod, even though sometimes I see, in some parts, that there are shortcomings in the way it is being conducted,” he said.

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“The joy of seeing how from small parish groups, from small church groups, very beautiful reflections emerge and there is great ferment,” he added, also stating that he did not invent the idea of a synod.

“It was Paul VI at the end of the Council who realized that the Catholic Church had lost the sense of synodality. The Eastern part of the Church maintains it,” the pope said.

He recalled his role as assistant general relator in the 2001 Synod of Bishops on bishops.

“At the time when I was preparing things for the vote on what had come from the groups, the cardinal in charge of the synod said to me, ‘No, don’t put that in. Take it out.’ In short, they wanted a synod with censorship, a curial censorship that blocked things,” Francis noted.

The pope said that though there were imperfections on the road to synodality since St. Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in 1965, “in the last 10 years we have been continuing the progress, until we reach, I think, a mature expression of what synodality is.”

“Synodality is not about going after votes, as a political party would,” he emphasized. “It is not about preferences, about belonging to this or that party. In a synod, the principal figure is the Holy Spirit. He is the protagonist. So you have to let the Spirit lead things. Let him express himself as he did on the morning of Pentecost. I think that is the strongest path.”

Advice for Jesuits

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During the conversation, Pope Francis also gave advice to Jesuits about living their vocation, including the exhortation to avoid worldliness.

“Spiritual worldliness is an often recurring pitfall. You have to learn to distinguish: It is one thing to prepare for dialogue with the world — as you do with dialogue with the worlds of art and culture — it is another thing to compromise yourself with the things of the world, with worldliness,” he said.

When it comes to guarding against worldliness, as well as living chastely, the pope emphasized the importance of doing a daily examination of conscience, as recommended by the founder of the Society of Jesus.

“Today the serious problem is about the hidden refuges of self-seeking, which many times involve sexuality, but also other matters. What to do? I find help in the examination of conscience, as St. Ignatius asked,” Francis said, noting that Ignatius of Loyola “very rarely” dispensed from this obligation for Society of Jesus members.

“Its aim is to see what’s going on inside you. And there are consecrated people who have their hearts exposed to the four winds, with their windows open, their doors open. In short, they have no internal consistency.”

Francis said prayer is also very important: “With prayer the Jesuit goes forward, afraid of nothing, because he knows that the Lord will inspire him in due time as to what he must do.”

“When a Jesuit does not pray, he becomes a desiccated Jesuit. In Portugal one would say he has become a ‘baccalà, a dried and salted codfish,” he said, referencing the famous Lisbon dish.

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